A standing ovation rippled through the standing-room-only crowd at First Presbyterian Church Tuesday evening, giving a thunderous welcome to the statuesque guest of honor. Tennis superstar Venus Williams, Mary Baldwin University’s 11th annual Smyth Leadership Lecture, soaked in the applause and thanked the community and benefactors Gordon and Mary Beth Smyth ’47 for the opportunity to expand her new venture into public speaking.
The four-time Wimbledon champion towered over the podium at 6’2” — 6’4” in her heels — but she was right on the audience’s level as she shared personal anecdotes, advice, and stories about her training and family — specifically younger sibling Serena, with whom she shares the tennis spotlight. A meet and greet, press conference, and dinner with Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox and selected students and alumnae rounded out Williams’ stay in Staunton. She left the community starstruck.
Sports Illustrated. Woman of the Year. ESPY’s Best Female Tennis Player and Best Female Athlete. One ofLadies’ Home Journal’s30 Most Powerful Women in America. And at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, October 23, Mary Baldwin University’s Smyth Leadership Lecturer.
Tennis phenomenon Venus Williams, 27, is best known for her success on courts around the world, but she has also demonstrated leadership ability as a successful advocate for equal pay for women in the sport. As the winner of the 2007 Wimbledon tournament, she was the first woman in the history of tennis to receive the same prize money as the men’s champion. Williams wrote an op-ed on the subject in The Times of London and delivered an impassioned speech at the All England Club. “I asked them to imagine their daughter out there,” she said, “playing equally hard as men and not getting the same reward.” Her leadership extends to two business ventures, too: a clothing line, EleVen, that will debut in November, and a budding interior design business, VStarr Interiors.
In addition to highlighting leadership potential, Williams’ appearance brings Mary Baldwin’s renewed focus on health and wellness into the spotlight. Coached by her father, the elder Williams sister turned pro at 14 and sealed her stardom with a win against one of tennis’ top 10 players. In February 2002, Williams was the first African-American woman to be ranked number one on the World Tennis Association tour. Her Wimbledon victory this summer was her fourth in that tournament, and her victory fell on the 50th anniversary of the first Wimbledon win by and African-American woman, Althea Gibson.
The Smyth Leadership Lecture is sponsored by H. Gordon and Mary Beth Reed Smyth. The Smyths have long supported education, leadership, culture, and historical preservation in Staunton and beyond. Through the lecture series, the Smyths give Mary Baldwin students and the community privileged access to inspirational female leaders.
The event will be at 5 p.m. on October 23 on Mary Baldwin University’s Page Terrace, in front of Grafton Library, Frederick Street, Staunton. The event is free, open to the public, and interpreted for the hearing impaired. For more information, call (540) 887-7009.